Comprehensive Exam Preparation

This information is designed to help mathematics and statistics graduate students prepare for the comprehensive exams (Comps). These exams are tough, and all too frequently, good students turn in mediocre papers or even fail. Our philosophy is that with better information, the whole process will be less painful, more successful, and ultimately, more beneficial for the students.

Studying for the Comps is a lot of work, but it can be a rewarding experience, both in the short term and in the long term. And your Masters degree will be worth much more if you really learn the material thoroughly, rather than just doing the minimum to scrape by.


  • No matter what your plans are, you came to CSULB to learn more math or statistics, and you'll spend several semesters learning new material. The Comps, firstly, give you a chance to review what you've learned after the semester is over and organize an entire subject coherently in your mind. Secondly, the rules force you to master two different subjects at once. For the rest of your life, you'll remember that for at least one week, you had a command of a broad spectrum of mathematics. It's a good feeling, and it will give you the confidence that you can always retrieve that knowledge even if you forget details later.
  • If you're heading for a job in industry, you'll be the expert in your field.
  • If you're looking at academic jobs in high schools or community colleges, you will be a much better teacher if you understand the deeper math underlying the ideas you're teaching. You will become the expert to whom your colleagues turn for help.
  • If you're looking at doctoral programs, you probably know that almost all programs have a rigorous battery of written exams that must be passed in the first couple of years. The Comps are excellent practice for these exams.
  • If you get A's on both your Comps, then you are officially designated by the department to have graduated with Distinction. This is something you can put on your CV/resume and show to employers, etc.
  • Even if you don't graduate with Distinction, you can brag about good grades on your Comps.
  • Professors grading your Comps will be impressed by strong papers. Many will be willing to express their approval in formal recommendation letters. Even without formal recommendations, the academic community is small, and it is nice to know that your work is well respected around CSULB.


You'll see fliers in the department at the end of each semester announcing signups for the Comps. Does that mean it's time to sign up and hit the books? Frankly, you should have started well before then. The exams are administered at the beginning of the following semester, and good preparation takes much longer than a few weeks during the break. Besides, professors are hard to track down during the break, and one of your best resources is asking professors for help.

After you take the graduate class that corresponds to a particular exam, it takes about one more semester to prepare thoroughly for the Comps. You'll need to organize the material in your own way, let it sink in, and practice applying it to solve problems. In many fields, you can do this as you take the second semester of the graduate class. Even if that second-semester material is not covered directly on the Comps, learning it will reinforce the concepts you learned in the first semester and give you practice applying that material in context.

Timeline of Tasks for Comprehensive Exam
Task Spring Exam of Next Year Fall Exam of Next Year
Take first semester graduate class Spring of this year Fall of this year
Organize notes, learn theorems, practice problems, consult with other scholars Fall of this year Spring of this year
Take second semester class, if available Fall of this year Spring of this year
Sign up for exam December May
Final review January Summer
Take the exam! February September

Subject-Specific Help

The following will help you with your exam preparations.

Pure Math Comps

These exams are for pure math graduate program.